Recipe for Success: How a Tupper Lake donut shop has endured for decades
Tina Merrihew has been making fresh, fried donuts for more than 30 years. It’s a skill she’s had to work to perfect. “It’s not as easy as it looks," she says.
Merrihew is behind the counter of the Washboard Donut Shoppe in Tupper Lake. In her red and black flannel shirt, she picks up a big, stainless steel funnel, known as the hopper, which she's filled up with donut batter.
To release the batter, Merrihew pushes down the handle at the top, but not for too long.
“It’s all in the pressure of the hopper," says Merrihew. "You can’t hold it, or otherwise they come out fat, so it’s sort of a quick punch.”
With each little punch, the perfect amount of batter plops into the hot oil. Merrihew watches closely as the donuts bubble and fry. “So see how they’re all popping open? And then you just flip them.”
She grabs a pair of long wooden tongs, each flip revealing a beautiful, golden donut. After a few more minutes, she takes them out to let them cool. You can order a donut just the way it is, old-fashioned, or with frosting that Merrihew makes herself.
“There’s raspberry, blueberry, strawberry. The chocolate is sort of like a really, thick brownie chocolate, so I do mix a little bit of vanilla in with it.”
There’s also peanut butter, maple bacon, and the latest addition– oreo cookie. The front door swings open and someone orders a half dozen donuts.
“I need two cinnamon sugar, two maple bacon and two chocolate,” says Jane St. Louis, who is from Tupper Lake and comes in every other month or so.
"It depends if there’s a birthday or not," says St. Louis. I ask her if she's getting donuts for a party or special occasion. "No, this is because it’s Friday and we deserve a treat," she replies, with a smile.
For some folks, the Washboard Donut Shoppe is a place to indulge, for others like Suzanne Orlando, it’s part of a routine. Orlando owns the Faust Motel in Tupper Lake.
“We come every day because these are the best donuts in the whole North Country and our customers love having something local and fresh every morning,” says Orlando.
That reliability is the key to this donut shop’s success, says Ed Fletcher, Tina Merrihew’s father. He’s owned the place for more than 30 years. Their customers, Fletcher says, can always count on them.
“They always know we’re here. They can do their laundry, have a donut, have a sandwich or go in the store, seven days a week.”
Fletcher opened a gift shop in here years ago. He also expanded the laundromat portion of the shop and ramped up their donut-making capacity. Fletcher says that’s really where the profit is, in bulk donut orders.
“Like yesterday, some lady came in and she bought, I think it was ten dozen, that’s what we need," says Fletcher.
They also need foot traffic, people coming downtown for one thing and then deciding to get donuts or something from the gift shop. That’s been tougher in recent years, with storefronts sitting empty or businesses not staying open consistently.
That wasn’t always the case in Tupper Lake. Fletcher grew up here and remembers when downtown was a lot more alive.
“In the ‘50s, you’d come down here at night, all the stores were open," says Fletcher. "There used to be four or five restaurants right here on Main St.”
Fletcher and others in Tupper Lake say there are seeing a bit of resurgence. Younger people are moving in, trying to build businesses here, and there’s a new housing project planned. Fletcher is hopeful about the rail trail that will connect Tupper Lake to Lake Placid.
Hi daughter, Tina says they’ll be here through it all. She’s confident the Washboard Donut Shoppe offers something special.
“I think the uniqueness of people seeing me make them, being fresh, making them up as they order," says Merrihew. "It’s just unique.”
I ask her if she likes donuts. "I do, but I limit myself, especially when they’re warm and rolled in the cinnamon, that’s the best.”
Of course, I have to fact-check her on that, so I order one, a freshly fried donut, still soft and warm, rolled in cinnamon sugar. She's right, it's delightful.